Philip Sherrard: The Sacred and Secular – An Artist’s Perspective





Philip Sherrard: The Sacred and Secular – An Artist’s Perspective

From an early age I have loved painting with a single-minded passion that has never abated. So I will give a talk on my own journey towards the divine through art.

In connecting my personal journey as an artist to the theme of the Sacred and Secular in Life and Art, I need to start where most of us in the West begin.

Philip Sherrard’s statement that ‘unless we can reinstate the sense of the sacred at the heart of all our activities, there can be no hope of avoiding the cosmic catastrophe for which we are heading’ struck a deep chord in me, because, with few exceptions, we have all grown up in a secular

culture, and the journey from the secular to the sacred is a long one for all of us. To free ourselves from the shackles of an egocentric life, which is what a secular society engenders, and to move into the realm of the sacred, entails a lifetime process of purification – a cleaning of the inside of the cup – this gradual cleansing is reflected in whatever one does – whether making a painting or sweeping the floor.

Given the scenario most of us have been presented with reminds me of a line from a wonderful article I read years ago written by the Sisters of St. Xenia Skete in California on ‘Literature, Culture and the Western soul’:We did not always wander dejectedly in the wasteland of neon and soap operas.’ (1)

Too often, artists of today feel it is their obligation to replicate the wasteland around them to bombard the world with images of violence and destruction with the view that by doing so, they are doing us a favour by being ‘responsible’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘politically correct’ or whatever the fashionable buzz word is.

This same article continues:

‘We must learn again what beauty is. … We must feel again that pang of homesickness, that bittersweet joy at almost touching, yet never grasping, almost hearing, yet never catching, Him whose Beauty makes art beautiful. In its truest, deepest sense, that is what art does; that is why we need it. It continually whets a thirst it cannot quench, continually reminds us of a hunger it cannot satisfy. It leads us up to the very highest reaches of human experience, and then leaves us still homesick, still longing for we know not what, and at that point the spirit is enabled to go on, to find its true home in God.’ (2)

Returning to the book, ‘The Sacred in Life and Art, Philip Sherrard includes a memorable quote from Gogol: ’If Art does not accomplish the miracle of transforming the soul of the spectator, it is but a transient passion..’We live in a world of ‘Transient passions’, and looking back to my beginnings as an artist, I would say that this is an all–too-prevalent

characteristic of most modern artists. At the root of our lives we have suffered from the curse that has afflicted most creative people over the past few centuries – that in assuming the role of creator with a small ‘c’, we have forgotten to acknowledge our debt to the Creator, with a capital ‘C’ – our Maker in Whom we live and move and have our being – without Whom there would be no artistic gifts, no wonderful insights – in fact, there would be nothing at all – not even us! If we acknowledged this fact from the time we began to paint – how different our art – and indeed we ourselves would be! If we became fully aware of the enormity of this revelation, all we could do is fall on our knees and say ‘Thank you!’ Everything we receive is a gift, including the creative energy an artist is blessed with. It is freely given from God, and the way it’s used depends on the individual. Like prayer, when it is working as it should, it works through you – you are the channel through which it flows if it’s kept sufficiently

clear – and here is the great stumbling block.

There’s a clue in Phillip Sherrard’s book, where at the very beginning, he expands on the origins of the word Sacred: ‘The word sacred is one of a whole of cognate words – words like sacrament, sacrosanct, consecrate, sacrifice – the original meaning of this last, ‘sacrifice’, being precisely to ‘make sacred’. This word ‘sacrifice’ holds the key.

But what to sacrifice? Looking back, I can see it was more my parents who sacrificed to ensure that all of us children were educated. But what did I sacrifice for my art? One can go through a list of the usual things an artist gives up – money, a comfortable life, fame and fortune (with rare exceptions) but the most important one – and the most difficult one to sacrifice is the sacrifice of one’s own ego. Having been given such a lavish gift, your artistic ego jumps in and becomes totally inflated – ‘Aren’t I just wonderful that I’ve been given this talent!’ – a little like the Pharisee who pities the publican for not being ‘special’ like he is.

The very fact that you were given this gift is enough to justify the fact that you are set apart as a very special person in this universe – and herein begins the beginning of one’s own personal fall – which I certainly have experienced more than once my life – in the form of an early failed marriage, of alienation from my fellow artists as a result of competitiveness and ambition – in other words, all the characteristics of the fallen world. So much so that on several occasions I have had made to make the decision to stop painting altogether, in recognition of the fact that I was turning into a ‘painting machine’. But every time I did this, something strange and wonderful would happen – whether it was after a few weeks, months, or even years (and this has a happened several times in my life), inevitably my gift – my art, my muse – call it what you will – my oldest and dearest friend, would return and say – ‘What about me’? And then I would resume where I left off, and it would be like it had never been away.

Only now that I have reached my eighties do I feel free of many of these negative traits that cut across my life as an artist. Although they didn’t actually stop the flow of creative inspiration, they certainly tainted this glorious gift with totally inappropriate coverings of skin.

I see more than ever, that for me, the purification process has meant a constant re-examining of myself and my motives, in order to remove these impediments which separated me from my fellow artists as well as from my Creator, and at last I’ve begun to experience the free flow of grace in the form of creativity that, if anything, has increased in my old age.

At this point, I think it would be useful to trace my progression in art from the secular to the – I won’t glorify it with the word ‘sacred’ – to the gradual

freedom from the ‘transient passions’.

Like many young artists when beginning their careers, I was totally unaware of the fact that art had in some way needed to have some relation to the spiritual.

In my beginnings as an art student, being an artist seemed more related to the world of free spirits, of hedonism, of total freedom. This only shows my ignorance at the time, and it was only years later that I began to link the world of art with the life of the spirit.

Paradoxically, at the same time that all this was going on, for at least the first ten years as a painter, when I had no interest whatsoever in the pursuit of the spiritual, it is in retrospect I can see that it was my art itself which was the Ariadne’s thread inexorably drawing me closer to my Creator. So, before I was even vaguely what one would call religious, painting was the only place for me that was akin to a spiritual practice. I wasn’t praying or meditating, or following any ascetic regime – nevertheless when I was working properly I was brought to a point of stillness that only years later I recognised as the kind of attention mentioned in such writings as the ‘Triads of St Gregory Palamas’, where he talks about the nous being brought back to itself from its wanderings abroad.

When people would ask me how I knew a painting was finished, my answer was that for me the test of whether a painting was ‘there’ or not was whether I would fall quiet when looking at it, and whether the observer would have the same reaction.

Only much later in life, through (my husband) Robin’s pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain did I discover the term Hesychasm – the practice that leads one to stillness, as well as such terms as ‘one pointed attention’, single mindedness’, ‘circular attention,’ ‘nous returning to itself’ etc. Without being aware of what it was, I was actually doing it. Before I met Robin and he became my teacher and guide, it was my art itself that was teaching me. Much later I came across the concept of ‘Ora et labora’- the discipline of monastics who alternate manual work with periods of prayer – a discipline which is universally practised on the Holy Mountain. In Phillip Sherrard’s book, he says:

Yet we can only ourselves fulfil our priest-like task on condition that our own inner world is animated by God.’ I think here he is referring to what I recognise as a sense of the inevitable – of having a ‘calling’ – but although I was worshipping at the altar of (beauty) art – like too many creative people, this was an altar that for many years didn’t include the Creator. He was calling me throughout this time, but wrapped in myself as I was, I didn’t hear His voice. I heard the call, but didn’t recognise the Caller.

There was a long period from the time my search began in the mid sixties to the early eighties when eventually Robin encountered the Tradition on Athos, and very soon after that we became Orthodox.

The search itself was a long period of purification, which I must say, is still going on, and will continue to go on until I depart this life.

This process of moving from being a ‘man of flesh’ to ‘one of the spirit’ is beautifully expressed in one of my husband’s poems : ‘The Love of Woman’ (in this case I merely substituted ‘the love of art’ which fits just as well: In this poem, he traces the progression of love from the earthly to the divine. At the end of each stanza he repeats this refrain:

Here lies my weakness;

Here my greatest sin

My heart’s in nothing

That you are not in.’

But at the very end, something changes: Here I substitute ‘Art’ for ‘Woman’ but the meaning is the same:

To love of Art at its utmost peak

The many tongues of silence softly speak

To tell the lover that when freed of pride

Naught shall his love from love of God divide.

Here dies my weakness

Here decays my sin

My heart’s in nothing that Thou art not in.’

I will end with a paradox. Previously I stated that I would know if my work had reached its desired end –

which was to bring one to a state of stillness.

The paradox is that in reaching this point, one has to travel through many countries in oneself – in my case, this seems to involved a continual search for that moment of surprise which gives me new energy each day to carry on my explorations – of unexpectedly chancing on a new way of seeing the world around me, and finding the best means of expression – in the hope that the viewer will be surprised and delighted at the result. So the paradox appears to be the juxtaposition of surprise with stillness.

I once read that some saint said the action of the Spirit was three-fold:

It was instantaneous, unpredictable and unexpected. When that happens in my work, I know I’m on the right track.

(1) ‘Literature, Culture and the Western Soul’

Sisters of St. Xenia Skete, California.

(2) Ibid.